Sir Roger Moore (1927 – 2017)

Sir Roger Moore (1927 – 2017)

Sir Roger Moore passed away today at the age of 89. Born on October 14th 1927, he was one of that generation of actors who seemed to have come to the profession from humble origins. Often, they had prior careers before going onstage. They also worked hard and took on many, many roles. Moore spent most of his working career as an actor, but also served in the Royal Army Service Corps, having been conscripted shortly after the end of World War 2. In later life he worked as a voice actor, UNICEF ambassador and an animal rights activist. Of course, like so many others, when I heard the news of his death I immediately thought of James Bond and Moore’s portrayal in many of the films.

I don’t remember ever seeing a Bond film on the big screen that didn’t feature Roger Moore. In the 1970s the Bond films did not have as much access to television as they do today. If you wanted to see one you checked the newspaper listings for show-times and went to a theater. I’m sure (as sure as I can be without data, at least) that somewhere today a Bond film is occupying a given 2 ½ hour slot on one of ten thousand cable channels. If not, then within the next 24 to 48 hours that will likely happen. I first saw the report that Sir Roger Moore passed away today on the BBC web page. I did a double-take. He was as much a touchstone of my 70s childhood as Star Trek re-runs, high polyester disco collars from Sears, and the Chevy Vega.

I enjoyed his suave portrayal of Ian Fleming’s most famous creation. The movies were fun and like previous features in the series set the tone and pace for what is fairly common in cinema today. It was a controlled spectacle, of course, especially by today’s standards. Even when Moore was outrageously romancing a femme fatale or desperately fighting the baddies to save the world you might squirm but you were still safe within the darkness of the theater. And the one liners were durable yet potently silly.

Moore was the Bond of the 70s. The guy who was your Dad’s age. Somewhere beyond the safety of your home or school he was holding back the darkness. Yet there was something metacultural going on in the Moore films. It was as if Sir Roger, in his own modest and wry way, was out there helping civilization sort through the jumbled attic boxes of the late Cold War and Vietnam. The backgrounds of these movies, even places as exotic as far-off Asia, suggested a creeping globalization and trend toward universal marketing. Bond could hop a plane and effect change pretty much anywhere. The people in these far-off societies were always relatable: a mix of old friends or new rivals. Moore, with an almost trademark élan, could handle them all.

The locales were always a big draw for me. The places were new yet somehow familiar. And if Roger Moore as Bond could do it you knew that sometime in the near future you could hop that plane and go to those places as well, even if your adventure was as mundane as seeking work or merely sight-seeing. I would argue that anyone growing up in the 70s put together their “future travel list” based on his films.

The first Bond film I saw was The Man with the Golden Gun. My cousins in Boston took me and the sheer overwhelming spectacle of this over-the-top feature felt like a Paragon Park roller coaster ride. The film had everything, including a cool villain named Scaramanga. Say it again: Scaramanga. Anyone with a name like that was trouble. I knew it, and Roger Moore agreed with me. We were in this together.

During that first outing I was 12 and had not really seen spy fiction beyond television’s The Avengers or The Man from U.N.C.L.E. At the time I had trouble following those plots. I had recently read a few Flandry novels, by a guy named Poul Anderson. And as dashing and brooding as Flandry was, he seemed a mere fop compared to the daring insanity that was Laumer’s Jaime Retief. Seeing The Man with the Golden Gun, I couldn’t help compare it to Laumer’s and Anderson’s novels. Indeed, sitting in the theater I became certain that Moore must have been a big fan of those writers.

I realize that the inevitable comparisons will be made to Sean Connery’s Bond. I’ve made those myself. Love Connery. Love his Bond. But I often feel that when those comparisons are made they are very unfair. They have little to do with the actors but more so to do with the times when the productions were made. We’re talking two distinct eras here. Connery’s films were made during an era of certainty. Certainty of path, certainty of role and gender, certainty, even, of moral justification in protesting those assumptions and then digging deeper to declare that it was all bad. In the Connery films this can be seen in the tone, production quality, and yes, even the certitude of Bond’s approach to the world.

Moore’s Bond is of a very different world than the Bond of Sean Connery. The 70s I grew up in seemed downright exhausted. Yet it was also a society that was choosing to honestly examine itself while trying to cling to a comforting insularity. The smoke of the 60s had become a ground fog. As it lifted the landscape was quite literally altered. It was also the time of disco, big glasses, Watergate, emerging access to the shining promise of very personal technologies, Three Mile Island, crazy hair, and silly trends like trolls and pet rocks. The economy was troubled and the world was pushing back on the West. The assumption of absolute certitude was questioned daily.

This tone surfaces amid the exotic locales and hectic pace of the Moore films. Certitude is on the decline. We see this immediately in Moore’s interactions with Lois Maxwell’s Miss Moneypenny. They tease one another, but there is no doubt in the viewer’s mind that the relationship is friendly yet platonic. Moneypenny is the boss’s assistant, not a plaything. Her job in the network of spies is perhaps just as important as Bond’s. Connery might have gotten a date with her, but Moore would need to find love elsewhere. Then in The Spy Who Loved Me the West needs help from the Soviets to stop a madman named Stromberg who wants to build an underwater empire. It’s a sign of the times when the emerging notion of détente enters a Bond film.

The last Bond film of the 70s is Moonraker. Hugo Drax, as if unwilling to be outdone by prior villain Stromberg, wants to create a perfect society of perfect people that he has hand-picked to live aboard a space station before re-populating the world. It will be a new world of like-minded demigods. Not the first utopian vision, surely. But there are echoes here of the baby boomers versus their parents. Indeed, the movie asks what is the formula for the perfect society? As was so often seen during the 1970s perhaps there isn’t one.

Moonraker’s final battle sequence is very similar to that in The Spy Who Loved Me and other Bond films. Yet the good-guys who assault Drax’s space station are US Marines. Enlisted men. Dogfaces. Unlike prior films these are not elite agents or ninjas. Watching it you get the impression they are a hodgepodge mix of working joes, doing a day’s job, albeit in Earth orbit. What I like about this is you get several platoons of everyday guys bringing down the perfect humans. It seems a very democratic end to the certainty of the 60’s superman.

The series features mis-steps of course. It may have been very lucky for Connery’s career that he didn’t star in Live and Let Die. That is as near to a blaxploitation film as I ever want to see. Of course, if Moore had Live and Let Die then Connery had Zardoz. Also, there’s a few occasions where the one-liners are a bit over-used and extremely groan-worthy. Yet to Moore’s credit he seems to realize this and in his later outings as Bond he went for a tone of self-parody before that was a thing. He was not the first actor to suffer through bad writing, I am sure.

And so the decade came and went and Roger Moore was very much a part of that. Sir Roger Moore’s Bond was a product of the 1970s. Moore carried the mantle of 007 through a decade that was a long and at times confusing metamorphosis.

And just like the song said, nobody did it better.

 

 

 

 

The Workaday Spacewalk

The Workaday Spacewalk

As I write two astronauts are performing a spacewalk outside of the International Space Station. I like to call the ISS “Izzy.” This was a nickname for the station used throughout the novel Seveneves by author Neal Stephenson.  I try to catch the daily updates from Izzy. I find it all very interesting. Currently serving aboard are 6 explorers: 3 Russian cosmonauts named Andrey Borisenko, Sergey Ryzihkov, and Oleg Novitskiy, a French astronaut named Thomas Pesquet, and 2 American astronauts. Currently the spacewalk features the 2 Americans: Shane Kimbrough and Peggy Whitson. Just before lunchtime (EST) Peggy Whitson broke the record for most accumulated spacewalk time for a female astronaut. That’s amazing and I wonder if such records will always be kept.

I’m watching a livestream courtesy of NASA TV. Its nice to full screen it and see all the happenings via the astronauts’ helmet cams. While I hammer out LabVIEW code I pick up voices and glance at images. Their EVA work seems at times strenuous, detail-oriented, and intense. But what is striking me today is how workaday it all seems. I’ve read that astronauts make it all look “easy” because of their long hours of training. I’m sure as in most things practice makes perfect. Yet from my vicarious view over the shoulder of each astronaut today’s deployment of protective covers seems like a routine task being undertaken by two focused yet almost casual professionals. And that sense of normalcy is pretty cool. It’s nice to watch an event where rationality, eagerness, and common-sense rule.

Not that today’s spacewalk was not without incident. One of the covers that was to be deployed went adrift. On the Izzy Cam it became a receding dot against the dark, starless sky. There was brief talk about going to retrieve it but that was ruled out. The tracking team noted it was in a position ahead of the station and poses no “re-contact hazard.” I think that means the lost cover will not become a thing that goes bump in the night.

The team on the ground worked with existing hardware to put together a Plan B. They need to cover up a section of the station’s docking adapter. They opted to use the bag that the covers come in. Shane and Peggy were pretty quick to adapt what materials they had to get the job done. Listening in, the casual viewer might not have known that anything had gone awry. No worries, I heard Shane say. Pretty cool.

The spacewalk continues and my workaday salad is now depleted. Back to the lab with me as Peggy, Shane, and company circle the Earth. Keep up the good work, you guys!

Attitude Hold

Attitude Hold

Last week saw several memorials to fallen astronauts, beginning with what may be the last “official” gathering to remember the crew of Apollo 1, who were lost in 1967. None of these lives were lost in vain, which is easier to say if you did not have a friend or family member among them. Still, such people as Gus Grissom or Judy Resnick or Mike Anderson cause us groundsiders to look up and wonder, and try a little harder, and remember that the Earth is a very small place. They helped all of us take tentative steps toward the promise of a better future. And in that, I think, is their memorial. Worlds without end.

Below is a short story I wrote a few years back during the flight of STS-135. It was published in the anthology magazine Infinities 4 in 2011.

“Sisters”

It wasn’t a very big telescope, as telescopes went. It was a stout barrel and it held a ten inch lens. That sounded impressive unless you compared it with the big professional telescopes at places like Kitt Peak, Mount Wilson, or that astronomer’s paradise known as Mauna Kea. So be it, it was the resource we had and like all resources Uncle Ty put it to good use. You could always count on him to do that, scavenge a thing declared useless and then turn it into gold.

He had found the big Meade at a garage sale, sitting forlornly amid lawnmower parts and plastic storage bins. A lifelong amateur astronomer, he paid the asking price of $500 and opted to eat potatoes, beans, and toast for the rest of that month. Never married and 57 years old, the single life allowed such impulses. That had been some years ago. Other budgetary as well as gastronomic sacrifices allowed him to accumulate a collection of hardware and instruments: all astronomical both in price and end-use. Ty asked a perplexed buddy who owned a Sawz-All to cut the roof off an old shed that sat in the far corner of his backyard. Once rollers and weatherproofing were added it made a very neat and passable observatory. He could be found there most evenings when he wasn’t working some night shift at the nearby paper plant.

As we lived on the adjoining property my sister and I got to visit him often. The winters were a bit more challenging than the summers, but at least when it was cold the bugs weren’t biting. And, oh, how those winter stars burned in the sky! Uncle Ty taught us the names of almost all of them. My mother, Ty’s baby sister, would insist we not stay out too late. But the siblings had worked out a call system via the intercom Ty had created between our houses. Thus, unknown to us until much later, our arrivals and departures were well-monitored.

One summer, Uncle Ty had alerted us for several days to the thing that would be in the sky that night. It was always some surprise: a comet or planet or oddball piece of space junk. And typically fuzzy, even in a telescope as large as Ty’s. You had to squint or look out the side of your eye or even imagine what he described. Sometimes wonders, Ty would joke, and sometime blunders.

Yet some of the planets he showed us burned into the back of your mind: ruddy Mars with its pale ice caps, crescent Venus, striped Jupiter and once even a tiny, embryo-like Saturn with razor-sharp rings. And he could find little jewels of stars or clusters of fog or bright new suns that clung together like orphaned children. Thus we ran greedily down the footpath that led from our big old house to Uncle Ty’s trailer. Above us the sky stood clear and bright and the backbone arch of the Milky Way curved from east to west. All those marvels above would soon be siphoned down through the lens of Ty’s telescope.

Just for us.

We rounded the trailer and past his antique Olds Delta 88. The lights inside the trailer were dimmed by a rheostat. Yet as we passed the aluminum-framed windows you could see his Hall of Fame. Colorful patches lined the walls just beneath the ceiling. Each was no more than 4-inches across but all were miniature works of art. They were mission patches from NASA projects like Gemini and Apollo and a big tin can with a windmill that had been called Skylab.

The bulk of the patches were for the Space Shuttle. We all knew about that. Our science teacher had a little model of the winged space ship in her classroom. The shuttle rode into space on five rocket motors and clung to the back of a fuel tank that was painted the color of a Florida tangerine. When its trip was done it came back to Earth like a glider. Two space shuttles had been destroyed. My buddy Glenn really latched on to that fact. He admired anything that blew up. Otherwise he hated science class.

“Hey Ty!” my sister and I called as we ran past the tall hedges and up to the observatory. Ty poked his long horsy face out the door. In the red light he used to protect his night vision he looked lean and gaunt. On Halloween you might have said spooky. His crooked smile dispelled any scariness. Even Camille, my kid sister, wasn’t scared of the observatory and all its weird equipment anymore.

“Hey Joe, hey Cammie,” Ty replied. When we were alone he didn’t mind if we didn’t call him “uncle.” At twelve it made me feel like we were all grown-ups and on an equal footing. But when Mom was around we called him Uncle Ty otherwise she would pitch a fit. Mom was a big churchgoer, and by default had high expectations regarding our level of manners when it came to kin or strangers. ‘Nuff said on that subject, I suppose.

“Can you see anything yet?” I asked.

“Soon. I have everything lined up,” Ty said in a baritone that seemed as smooth as the purr of the car engines he was always working on. He had two Oldsmobiles that were over 40 years old. He kept their big V8s in mint condition. When winter hit the North Country he’d park them in storage until the twin demons of snow and salt went away. Occasionally the VFW would ask him to drive one or the other in a village parade.

He called the old cars Challenger and Columbia. After the two shuttles, of course. Framed photos of the lost crews from each ship hung in the little observatory. I often studied those faces. They looked like brave people, but also kind. Scientists and pilots who were also moms and dads, aunts and uncles. Something in their eyes made them sort of young-looking, even if they were really old people. I don’t know how else to describe them.

“Just waiting for it to drop into view,” Ty said and then looked toward the western horizon. This early in July you had to stay up late before the sun’s light was totally gone from the sky. A smudge on the horizon was all that remained of the sun now. Stars owned the night. And something else…

“Is that it?” Cammie asked. I marveled. She was getting better at spotting things in the night sky than me! Her count for meteors totally outstripped my own, even allowing for the few that we both made up when the other’s back was turned. Meteors were lightning-quick. Like stray thoughts or memories from when you were very little.

I looked in the direction she was pointing. A bright star was rising silently above the horizon. It looked like a dazzling flare and rivaled anything else crowding the sky above Uncle Ty’s trailer. It swept eastward. Usually you would see a light and it would be some airplane heading toward the little airport in Fulton. But not this. No, it moved with a relentless energy all its own and you actually held your breath as it cut across the heavens above you. It was as silent as the star-crowded sky, and that very sky seemed to part ways in order to let it pass.

“There’s Icy,” Cammie said informatively. That is what she had always called the International Space Station. We stood rooted as the ISS, that lonely human outpost, passed above us. I wondered who was there tonight and if they were looking down at us right now.

“Right you are,” Ty said. He got busy then. He dimmed the red lights and re-checked his home-built PC. Cables ran from the boxy computer to the camera that hung like an afterthought from the eyepiece of the telescope. The camera was a heavy arrangement and had to be counter-weighted by an old peanut butter jar filled with lead shot. That was so the ‘scope wouldn’t slew over on its mount. It was a delicate balance and Ty had the arrangement perfected.

Once, when Dad caught a break from his work schedule he came over to Ty’s and looked around the observatory. “It’s all a patchwork,” Dad said, laughing. “But if you say it works, I guess it works. Sure a sight. Wouldn’t stand down at the plant, though.”

Ty just shrugged and smiled. “Perfection is the enemy of just good enough,” he said. That was sort of Ty’s motto. And he lived by it. He had had some college. Physics, Mom said. But the tuition money had run out and the city where he lived got a little too busy for him. So one day he just packed up and headed home for the North Country.

“He was always clever,” Mom had told us once. “As good as any college grad, I guess. He can sure talk like one, anyway. All those books he reads.” Then she would sigh, almost wearily. “I suppose he could be off doing all those space things he’s so fond of,” she would say. “But you know he’s just content to fiddle and play around and be who he is.”

Ty turned a knob and scanned the western horizon. He checked the PC and camera one more time. He kept a split eye-piece at what he called “the business end of the telescope.” Thus he could peek through an eye-piece and see the night sky at the same time that the camera was scanning it. That set-up had cost him more than the telescope itself, he had said. Special order through some optics manufacturer. Another month of beans on toast.

“There it is,” he whispered. He hit a switch and the telescope began to track. Another one of Uncle Ty’s modifications made special just to let the old ‘scope chase spacecraft. On the PC a little blob of light at the center of the screen grew. It resolved into a triangular shape. The space shuttle Atlantis winged through the cosmos. Cammie and I breathed a collective “ohhhh.”

It was the Last Shuttle, Ty had said. The last mission of over one hundred that had flown. For the last decade most of the missions had been dedicated to building the ISS. Now the shuttles were being retired. The proud ships would become museum pieces. Except for the two that had challenged the sky and been destroyed.

“It’s chasing Icy,” Cammie said.

Ty smiled. “Yup. Like a hound after a rabbit. That ship’s hauling the mail. The last supply run to the ISS. It’s a short visit at the space station and then back home for the crew.”

“The last one,” I said. “Ever.”

Ty shrugged. “Something will replace the shuttle. Someone somewhere is always working on the next big thing.” Mom said Uncle Ty was always talking about the Next Big Thing.

Atlantis rose in the dark sky above us, a bright jewel among distant stars. A meteor crossed heaven somewhere in its wake. A startling sight and one we goggled at. Another confirmed meteor that Cammie and I would add to our count! The Atlantis Meteor we would later call it.

“Can I run the telescope?” Cammie asked.

I rolled my eyes in the darkness. Cammie always wanted to “run the telescope” no matter what was going on. And Ty would always let her. Even if it might mess up whatever he was observing. “I’m not publishing any of this data,” he would say. And then just laugh.

Cammie stepped up to the eyepiece and her small hand adjusted the focus knob. The barely defined triangular shape on the screen became an irregular blob. Then she adjusted the knob in the other direction. Just when Atlantis went back into focus Cammie overcompensated.

Suddenly there was three of everything on the screen. But most especially three shuttles. Atlantis hung in the middle, but now one fuzzy duplicate shuttle flew just ahead of it and another followed. It looked like a flying formation of space shuttles. Like some sort of cosmic air show. I shook my head. Leave it to Cammie.

“Whups,” Cammie said, looking at the screen. “Now there are three. I’ll fix it.”

But Uncle Ty put his hand on Cammie’s shoulder and whispered, “Wait.” His voice was so soft that I could barely hear him over the whine of the tracking motor. He stared at the screen for a long time. Then his eyes went to the two photos on the observatory wall. The lost crews of Columbia and Challenger looked back at him. Overhead, Atlantis winged its way to the east, a tiny bubble of air and light and life.

On the screen the three images continued to fly in formation. A glitch in the focal alignment, surely. A product of old optics and my sister’s untrained hand.

Cammie turned to look up at Ty, her hair dropping across one eye. “I’ll fix it,” she said and her voice was as soft as the night.

“No,” Uncle Ty said quietly. “Tonight I think we’ll let Atlantis fly with her sisters.”

~fin~

Note the featured artwork is called “Attitude Hold” by Kim Poor, 1986

Mars

Mars

Morning on Mars.

A shrunken sun rose to cast feeble light across the dust of a billion years. Cold darkness became shadow. Shadow evaporated as quickly as the night’s tenuous frost. A thin, cold wind grew from the south, ghostly herald of spring storms rising up from the distant ice cap. Chill and bitter, the wind clutched and tossed the ancient sands. Talcum-fine grit ascended, gathered momentum, and flew onward to channel dunes, erode rock, and bite at the metal flanks of the ship from Earth…

from “The Long Road”

It’s October, and more than any month it seems like a time that is primed and ready for our distant, mysterious neighbor. Sure, March is named after the Roman god of war, and I’ve seen the planet stand ruddy in the sky even in the spring. It has also stood bright as any ornament at Yule and chased its fellow planets across the ecliptic during the shortest of those warm, dreamy summer nights.

But if you think of the fascination, mystery, and downright spookiness of the planet it seems a place of eternal autumn. The fall is that point in time when…on the terrestrial plane at least…life weakens, withers, or takes flight. We come to the Red Planet not in its spring or full summer, now epochs past, but in the lateness of its planetary fall. Our probes and rovers taste what once was, smell what might have been, behold the crumbling facades of rock walls and traceries of rivers that run like echoes into the ocher dust. In those carefully crafted mechanical hands our robotic explorers hold the faintest, barely tangible evidence of an ecosystem that might have once harbored life.

Giovanni Schiaparelli caught glimpses of reality through his telescope. In a poignant, honest attempt to quantify this mysterious world he described in dry publications what his eye beheld. When reporting surface features in 1877 he used the term for line which in Italian is canali. What was an honest description became misunderstood and when mistranslated into English the word canali became canal. Suddenly Mars, in its barrenness, became a place of wonder. Theories grew up around these canals and many came to believe that a vast Martian civilization was a certainty. Percival Lowell spent his fortune and his life in part pursuing this dream. By 1908 he had published several books of observation and speculation regarding life on Mars.

And he wasn’t alone. A young mid-western transplant growing up in Los Angeles felt his imagination catch fire one day while reading about Mars in his local public library. If any modern author’s name is synonymous with the Red Planet it would be Ray Bradbury. Alight from the stories of Burroughs, Conan-Doyle, and many a western dime novel the young Bradbury crafted a wealth of tales around missions to the arid plains of Mars. The fiction he created in the 1940s and 50s featured a vast Martian civilization where alabaster cities crumbled along the banks of shallow canals. The humans in these stories were as far from their home on Earth as the young Bradbury was from his native Illinois. The human settlers eked out a living amid mystery and caught the occasional glimpse of those from whom they had both wrested and inherited an entire world.

But whether in the sciences, writing, or the imagination Mars has always been there in the sky, beckoning. In 1964 the first Mariner probes were being readied for launch on flyby missions to the Red Planet. One map used for planning was provided by the Air Force and featured the Mars of many a careful observational campaign. It is the black and white map seen above. Drawn from existing data in 1962, the map features varied shades and surface markings and no few mysterious lines that seemingly depict canals.

Launched in November of 1964 Mariner 4 would be the first probe to fly past Mars and capture precious surface photographs. In July of 1965 the first bits of data were downloaded at JPL in Pasadena. It could be said that in the moment when Mariner 4 flew past Mars a chapter was turned. Barsoom was forever gone and a new era of planetology had arrived. Instantly, the Mars of Lowell, Burroughs, and Bradbury evaporated like so much tenuous frost before the distant sun.

Mariner 4 showed us that Mars was a cratered desert world, with miserly polar caps and giant mountains that bespoke a geologic history now frozen in time. It was a fascinating place, surely, and as broad and rich in its unique history as was the Earth. But there were no canals or lost cities. The search for life on Mars would continue, but those in the vanguard of that search would have to go deeper, look harder, and seek their answers in stubborn rock and volatile chemical signals.

Fast forward to last week and Elon Musk of the company SpaceX was at the IAU General Conference in Guadalajara. He spoke both humbly and optimistically of a bold concept to send humans to Mars with the goal of seeing a manned landing in 10 years. The program offered only a high level view of this concept, complete with PowerPoint slides and impressive CGI renderings of this vision. Mr. Musk described round-trip rockets that could carry a hundred people to Mars. He envisioned the growth of early outposts into cities that could eventually be home to thousands, possibly millions. He even showed some of the technology SpaceX is developing, including a rocket and a composite fuel tank. The rocket had been tested the day before and the fuel tank was as big as a house. The message was clear: SpaceX is bending tin.

Yet despite my skepticism there was enough of a grounding to it that, combined with SpaceX’s reputation, I felt a flutter of anticipation I have not known since reading Bradbury when I was a kid. Mars is an enormous challenge and I will apply Occam’s Razor to this plan. Yet even if SpaceX completes a small fraction of what it purports to do, that attempt, no matter how fledgling, offers great promise.

Imagination does not fuel rockets. However experience, common sense, hard work, money, and optimism do. I wish Mr. Musk and SpaceX only the best in their endeavor. Perhaps we are on our way to becoming the Martians of whom we once dreamed.

murray-buttes

Rosetta

Rosetta

I get Facebook updates from the European Space Agency’s Rosetta Mission. They are timely, fact-filled mini-articles about recent image downloads and science that is being undertaken by the spacecraft, currently in orbit around the Comet 67P/Churyumov –Gerasimenko. This is an impressive feat and one that will likely add volumes to the study of comets and planetary formation, among many other things.

What really strikes me about these images, placed with seeming casualness on-line, is not how otherworldly the comet appears but how…in grey scales and shadow…it looks a little like the ocean floor. The other striking thing is that from the depths of the ocean to the farthest reaches of our solar system, the urge to explore and the ingenuity to do so is remarkable.

Over a year and a several months ago, as of this writing, a small lander touched down on the rugged surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov –Gerasimenko. And like a tourist on holiday to some exotic land Philae diligently sent back a series of intriguing pictures. There is other data as well, and the scientists are reporting trace organics and a surface consistency that is measurably harder than they expected. Yet my eyes keep going back to those pictures. I can’t get away from how there is something about the composition of this first picture from Philae that reminds me of one of Alvin’s first photos of an undersea hydrothermal vent. In one case the operator is bare inches away from the target, in the other, tens of millions of miles.

Alvin explores a vent (l), Philae lands on a comet (from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and ESA websites, respectively)

 Either way, the explorers are human and the robots we send are our ambassadors.

In the midst of all this wonder, in one very tiny corner of the world-spanning meta-community that is the internet, a minor brouhaha has erupted around the old idea that there is a dangerous competition between manned exploration and unmanned, robotic probes.

What? Humans and Robots fighting for budgetary supremacy? Nonsense, of course, but the very human need to carve out a niche of opinion nevertheless has a small camp of pro-manned spaceflight enthusiasts warning against our becoming too cozy with the idea of robotic exploration. The strategy applied in recent times is to accuse a given individual or organization of some sort of hypocrisy for not being total and complete adherents to one view of what space enthusiasts call The Dream.

Sigh: the internet. But hypocrisy by supporting a robotic mission? I don’t think so. Nor do I think that the old robots-vs-manned space argument can even be characterized as a debate these days. In a sense, they are two unique branches of a pathway that leads ever outward.

Yes, in all likelihood in 50, 100 or a 1000 years people will live and work on Luna, Mars, and the asteroids. But the first entities to arrive at these places will be robots who report back not just to scientists but the public who support them via tax dollars. I celebrate what our astronauts and cosmonauts do aboard the International Space Station. But when it became apparent to me that in my lifetime I might never again see humans venture beyond low Earth orbit, I decided to actively and enthusiastically follow the many robotic missions that are ongoing throughout the solar system. It is a fascinating time to be alive!

Robots: Mariner, Lunokhod, Viking, Venera, Voyager, Galileo, Magellan, Curiosity, Hayabusa, Chang’e, Rosetta and Philae. The list goes on and on. And the nationalities behind these endeavors represent quite a diversity of humanity. These machines venture outward into mystery, yet in my mind’s eye I can certainly see a gloved human hand sampling Martian soil or gathering the material of that far-away comet. But until that distant day arrives the bulk of us armchair-astronauts here on Earth will rely on our cybernetic avatars to bring us wonders just beyond the orbit of our lonely planet.

Enthusiasm for robotic, unmanned exploration doesn’t diminish The Dream, it’s one of the things that keep it alive. And surely someday humans of all stripes and outlook will follow the robots outward. Our descendants will take along all the complexity that being human allows. And while settling landscapes which we can only begin to imagine they will solve problems, build communities, grow families, play games, and celebrate holidays.

Worlds without end.